World Pangolin Day 2021: The continuing threat of pangolin trafficking

Wildlife Justice Commission operatives posing as buyers were offered staggering amounts of pangolin scales to buy in 2020, while the number of seizures decreased significantly compared to 2019. In spite of travel disruptions due to COVID-19, prices for pangolin scales have not plummeted dramatically. The Wildlife Justice Commission fears that once COVID-19 travel restrictions ease, trafficking of pangolin scales will resume to previous levels, putting enormous pressure on an already threatened species.

In 2020, the pangolin went from being a relatively unknown animal to literal front-page news. In spite of persistent speculation about the pangolin’s relationship to the origins of the COVID-19, pangolin products evidently remained an appealing commodity for wildlife criminals throughout the year. During 2020, Wildlife Justice Commission investigators were offered staggering quantities of pangolin scales, outnumbering the offers of ivory across all our investigations for the first time.

The trafficking of pangolin scales has transformed from a somewhat “niche” wildlife crime to a significant transnational problem, as our 2020 report The Rapid Growth in the Industrial Scale Trafficking of Pangolin Scales pointed out. Official law enforcement seizures are clearly just a drop in the ocean of trafficked pangolin scales. The fact that the Wildlife Justice Commission investigators were offered huge quantities of scales throughout 2020 demonstrates their continued availability and ongoing marketplace demand, despite COVID-19-related restrictions.

Comparison of seizures: 2019 vs 2020

While availability seems to have skyrocketed, prices have not plummeted dramatically, as may have been anticipated. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, many traders began stockpiling their products in order to resume trade as soon as they possibly could. It is probable that some of the scales we were offered in 2020 came from such stockpiles. This only serves to compound our concerns about a market surge when travel becomes easier. This is sustained by the recent seizure of over 854 tonnes of mixed endangered wildlife products, including 8.8 tonnes of pangolin scales, in Nigeria in January of this year.

What is driving this demand for pangolin scales in the first place? One aspect of the problem is that pangolin scales are increasingly substituted for, and trafficked alongside, ivory. While ivory prices fall, pangolin prices rise – or at least remain somewhat stable. This has become a significant problem in recent years, a trend our Intelligence Development Unit first identified in 2019. In September of that year, the Wildlife Justice Commission published an analysis identifying this trend, and indicating that as ivory prices were falling, traffickers were increasingly turning to pangolin scales and, in combined shipments, the proportion of pangolin scales had surpassed the volume of ivory.

Analysing the relative pricing trends in pangolin scales and ivory, it becomes clear that pangolin scales are holding a steady value in spite of declining prices, a trend which is consistent for all high-value wildlife commodities recently.

We cannot look away: the problem of combined shipments persists, pointing towards the involvement of organised criminality, as does the trafficking and purchasing of pangolin scales. The Wildlife Justice Commission is uniquely placed to monitor and report on both official and black-market trends in pangolin scales, and it is clear: the pangolin is already a highly vulnerable species, and the trafficking of their scales is pushing them towards extinction. There is no time to waste. Once the pangolin is gone, it will be gone forever.

The trafficking of pangolin scales is an organised crime and should be tackled in the same manner as other forms of serious and organised crime. It is crucial to remove the incentive to become involved in, or to continue, trafficking pangolin scales. The trafficking of pangolin scales is already occurring on a sustained level. Advanced investigative techniques and intelligence analysis to tackle wildlife crime are needed now, before it’s too late for the pangolin.